If someone files a lawsuit, and the parties cannot settle the dispute, the case must be litigated. By “litigate,” I mean the process of taking a lawsuit through the court system until a decision, or verdict, is issued which decides the outcome.
Many people, including attorneys, are wary about the time it takes to get a court decision. In Allegheny County, cases involving claims for monetary damages are filed with the Civil Division. Because the County is very large, sometimes it can be one to two years or more after a suit is filed through the County’s General Civil docket before the matter even gets to trial. Civil Arbitration is an alternative which provides a quicker route to decision making.
Allegheny County is fortunate to have an Arbitration Division within its Civil Division. Appeals from local Magisterial District Judge civil case decisions, as well as any civil suit where the claimant (Plaintiff) seeks damages of not more than $25,000.00, must be filed with the Arbitration Division. If someone wants to seek more than $25,000.00 in damages, that suit cannot be filed in Arbitration, but must go on the more crowded General Docket.
Unlike cases on the General Docket, once an appeal from a Magisterial District Judge matter or other case is filed in Civil Arbitration, it usually takes only four to six months (if not sooner) to get a hearing date. The reason cases can be moved along more quickly is that instead of having a Judge preside over each hearing, an Arbitration Board comprised of three attorneys listens to the testimony and evidence, acts as the fact-finder, and issues a decision. The Arbitrators are appointed by the Court from the active members of the local Bar, much like members of the public are selected for jury duty. At least one of the three attorneys on each Board of Arbitrators must have at least five years of trial experience, and all attorneys appointed must be members of the Bar in good standing.
Typically, 25 to 35 cases are scheduled for hearings in Arbitration on a particular day, with five to seven separate Arbitration Boards being impaneled at the same time to handle the scheduled cases. If one side to a dispute does not appear for the hearing, then the side that did appear wins by default. Civil rules of evidence and procedure – plus some special Arbitration rules – apply and are followed at Arbitration hearings. Because of this, it is usually preferable, but not necessary, for the parties to be represented by legal counsel.
At the hearing, the Plaintiff has to present his or her case, which includes putting evidence on the record and having witnesses testify. The Defendant can cross-examine those witnesses, then present his or her own case. Normally, the Arbitration Board renders a decision the same day, and the result will be mailed to the parties.
The decision reached by the Arbitrators in a case is not final or binding; there is a 30 day period within which an appeal to the Civil Division can be filed. The appealing party can request either a jury or non-jury trial. If a non-jury trial is requested, the other party can still demand a jury trial. In terms of achieving a resolution to a case, it may take an additional six months to one year to get a non-jury trial, and it may take two or more years to get on the jury trial list.
Thus, Civil Arbitration can get you into the Court system more quickly and provide a decision, but the litigation does not have to end there; depending on the appeals process.